Sleep is essential for everybody’s wellbeing.
And a good night’s sleep always makes you look and feel great. With smoother skin, shinier hair, brighter eyes and fewer breakouts!
But for elite athletes, who exercise at a high level, quality sleep is critical to their performance too.
Sports medicine professionals and coaching staff have put a lot of effort and research into establishing guidelines and intervention tools for athletes to use to make sure they get the sleep that they need.
And whether you’re competing at a competitive level or not, you can adopt the same approach.
Below we look at their sleep strategies along with some alternative “hacks” that athletes use to improve the quality of their sleep.
Improving sleep quality benefits almost every area of your health – impacting your physical development, emotional regulation, cognitive performance, and general quality of life.
It also enhances athletic performance – along with reducing the risk of both injury and illness.
It’s clear that quality sleep is vital for optimizing good health.
For Elite Athletes Quality Sleep Is Critical
More and more evidence shows that improved sleep quality - as well as increased sleep duration - is associated with improved performance and higher rates of competitive success for athletes.
And the negative effects of sleep deprivation cannot be overstated.
What the Science Says
Because it’s so important, many studies have documented the effects of sleep deprivation and sleep extension on athletic performance. Looking at reaction times, accuracy, strength and endurance, and cognitive function.
This 2017 study of Brazilian elite athletes demonstrated that competitive success is undoubtedly related to increased sleep duration and quality.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Performance
Studies found that lack of sleep had a negative effect on:
- Endurance - previous research has demonstrated that sleep deprivation inhibits endurance performance.
- Speed – research found slower mean sprint times in male team sport athletes after a period of sleep deprivation.
- Strength - A single study found that maximum weights lifted in bench press, leg press, and dead lift all decreased after three consecutive nights of too little sleep.
And there are clear negative effects of sleep deprivation on reaction time, accuracy, and vigor. With cognitive functions, such as judgment and decision-making, also suffering.
The Performance Enhancing Effects of Sleep Extension
On the other hand, getting more sleep – or sleep extension – had a positive effect on reaction times, mood, sprint times, tennis serve accuracy, swim turns, kick stroke efficiency, and increased free throw accuracy.
Given all this evidence, most studies still found that athletes often fail to get the recommended amount of sleep, threatening both their performance, their health and competitive success.
Why Are Athletes Not Getting Better Quality Sleep?
It’s undoubtedly for the same reasons as you or I.
Athletes face the same type of obstacles that we do - training and competition schedules, travel, stress, academic or work demands, and overtraining.
In light of this, sports medicine professionals and coaching staff prioritize:
- proper scheduling,
- travel protocols,
- time management,
- stress management,
- and sleep hygiene
in athletes to improve their performance, and overall health.
And these are all things that you can prioritize too.
What Works Best To improve Sleep?
Studies of elite athletes implemented several different sleep interventions - including sleep extension and napping, improving sleep hygiene, and post-exercise recovery strategies.
And the evidence suggests that sleep extension (getting more sleep) had the most beneficial effects on performance.
One study looked at the effect of sleep extension on the athletic performance of Stanford University men's varsity basketball team.
They found that with optimal sleep, the players were running faster timed sprints, and their shooting accuracy improved. They also reported improved overall ratings of physical and mental well-being.
Sleep Hacks to Extend Your Sleep Time
Scheduling an early bedtime is all well and good, but sometimes it can be hard to get to sleep.
And while it’s true that exercise helps you to fall asleep quicker you can still improve the quality of your sleep with good sleep hygiene.
These tips can help everybody to experience better quality sleep, not just elite athletes:
- a good sleep environment - this should be comfortable, dark, with minimal ambient noise or distraction. and a little on the cool side rather than warm
consistent sleep and wake times – it helps to get up at the same time every morning (even on weekends and holidays)
- have a regular bedtime ritual – try to establish a 30- to 60-min period of quiet relaxation before bedtime. This prepares your body for bed
Reduce caffeine intake or other stimulants – these should be limited to the morning hours
Limit alcohol in the evening - due to its disruptive effects on sleep
- Avoid high-intensity exercise right before bed - intense exercise raises your cortisol levels, which impairs sleep.
Limit blue light from screens – try to avoid using smartphones or laptops at least 2 h before bed. Blue light suppresses melatonin production that is needed to induce sleep
Get bright, natural light upon waking - the sun is ideal but a dawn-simulator alarm clock also works well
Don’t hit the snooze button - it doesn’t improve sleep quality.
Meditation - before bed this may be helpful
Look at your diet - Higher carbohydrate intake (of high glycemic index foods) at night can improve sleep. But high fat intake at night can disrupt it.
Similarly, inadequate total calorie intake during the day can make it harder to get to sleep at night.
- Try magnesium – either topically (for example in bath salts) or oral magnesium supplements.
- Taking melatonin can improve sleep – this is naturally occurring in foods like cherry juice, raspberries, goji berries, walnuts, almonds, tomatoes – or you can take melatonin supplements
- Reduce your fluid intake before bed - so you don’t have to get up to use the bathroom
How much sleep do I need?
It’s hard to give a straight answer to this – mainly because everybody has different needs.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adults require between 7 and 9 h of sleep for optimal performance and health.
But athletes may require more to allow for adequate recovery. So you could consider aiming closer to 9 or 10 h of sleep if you’ve upped your training schedule.
You can read more here:
- "The Art of Taking a Proactive Nap"
- "10 Benefits of Taking a Power Nap (and glowing skin is one of them)"
- "Beauty Sleep: 14 ways to sleep better"
For elite athletes sleep is vital.
With good quality sleep improving overall health as well as athletic performance - including reaction times, accuracy, strength and endurance, and cognitive function.
And studies of elite athletes suggest that sleep extension (getting more sleep) had the most beneficial effects on performance.
To extend your sleep time you can adopt the same strategies:
Start by setting up a good sleep schedule, especially when you’re travelling, improve your time management, reduce stress and improve your sleep hygiene in the same ways recommended for athletes:
- Sleep in a cool, dark environment
- Keep to consistent sleep and wake times
- Have a regular bedtime ritual
- Reduce caffeine intake
- Limit alcohol in the evening
- Avoid high-intensity exercise right before bed
- Limit blue light from screens
- Get bright, natural light upon waking
- Don’t hit the snooze button
- Look at your diet
- Try magnesium
- Take melatonin to improve sleep
- Reduce your fluid intake before bed
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